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UTT Campus by Lipsky + Rollet Architects, Troyes, France

Lipsky + Rollet’s student housing blocks are a modern take on Troyes legacy of half-timbered vernacular buildings. Photography by Paul Raftery

‘We don’t want to be middle of the road,’ says Florence Lipsky during the train journey to Troyes to see Intégral Lipsky+Rollet Architectes’ latest project, a new campus for the local university. But few could accuse the Paris-based partnership of MOR tendencies. Underpinned by a concern for materials, tectonics and energy use, Lipsky and partner Pascal Rollet have cultivated a reputation for formally restrained but technically inventive buildings that make the most of unpromising programmes and limited budgets. The pair relish the edginess and economy of raw or industrial materials played against modular, Miesian structures. They are inventive punks rather than supper-club crooners.

The Grands Ateliers in Lyons (AR August 2002), for instance, was an exemplary exercise in stripping architecture down to its structural and constructional logic, bluntly described by Rollet as a ‘neutral architecture machine’. But there is poetry too, in projects such as a glass museum set inside a former factory (AR November 2007), where the muscle of heavy industry is counterpointed by the delicacy and craft of a collection of crystal objects.

Though Troyes manifests the partnership’s preoccupation with how things are made and put together, here they devise a cunning, modern version of colombage (half-timbered construction) - such concern also extends to the wider townscape. ‘We saw it not just as architecture, but as an exercise in urbanism,’ says Lipsky. ‘We thought hard about how our buildings respond to the street pattern.’ This proved their trump card in a competition to design a 16.2 million euros programme of student housing and sports facilities for the Technical University of Troyes (UTT) on a site near the city’s cathedral. While rival architects, such as Bernard Tschumi, opted to design a single structure, Lipsky+Rollet teased out the brief’s disparate functions into four separate buildings. Tactfully implanted within Troyes’ urban matrix, the architecture consolidates a new set of civic spaces, unifying and animating a hitherto nondescript public realm.

An hour and a half by train to the south-east of Paris, Troyes is a former textile-making town, now stoically enduring the collapse of its industrial base. Prosperity as a trading centre during the Middle Ages (the town gave its name to the troy system of weights still used for precious metals) accounts for a conspicuous legacy of half-timbered houses. Within a tight maze of streets, the narrow colombage structures sway and collide like a crowd of elegantly dissipated drunks, heightening the sense of period drama.

Shaped like a champagne cork, the medieval core swells out and around the 13th-century Saint Pierre-et-Saint Paul Cathedral. On its tumescent east, the core is bounded by the Seine, linking Troyes with Paris. Nudging towards the edge of the cork where the urban texture is looser and less homogenous, Lipsky+Rollet’s site lies in the lee of the cathedral, next to the bishop’s house (now converted to an art museum). Yet despite this proximity to the town centre, the site was curiously isolated and plain.

The notion of dissecting the brief into separate components came from Lipsky+Rollet’s studies of the campus’ evolution, both as a building type and an urban proposition. From its origins as a series of intimate quads and cloisters, the modern campus has become progressively atomised and dispersed, characterised by placelessness and anomie.

‘We wanted to push it back together, to reinstate a sense of the university being part of the city,’ says Lipsky.

Reintroducing water that once flowed through a now largely infilled network of local waterways, the quartet of new buildings is arranged around a revitalised basin and canal. Tailing off to the east to join the Seine, the canal threads its way through a new public park. This landscaped strip rises up over two storeys of parking, bunkered in a kind of rusticated concrete base, to create an elevated square at one end of the new sports hall. From this urban belvedere, the campus unfolds. A crisp, cubic tower containing dance and martial arts studios anchors the north-west corner and two almost identical blocks of student accommodation frame a central parvis. A pair of skinny bridges slope and skim across the basin, linking the elevated square with the parvis, so while the new elements form an identifiable ensemble, the site is still permeable. Pedestrian routes cut through and around the campus, locking it into the town and emphasising the programme’s civic dimension (both the sports hall and studios are open to the public).

Although the new buildings share a common language of almost industrial simplicity, they are clearly identified by use of materials. The two sports structures are strong, sober volumes wrapped in polycarbonate sheeting containing ultra-fine metal louvres, which give the facades a shimmering, gauzy caste. Yet despite the uncompromising geometry, they are not insular pieces of architecture. From the belvedere you can see down into the sports hall through a glazed end wall, while large vitrines cut into the neighbouring cube reveal its inner workings, so connecting the life of the buildings to the life of their surroundings.

By contrast, the two student residences are sheathed in a rustic assemblage of timber and polycarbonate, which together with the mono-pitched roofs, gives the architecture a folksy feel. Perhaps homely is a better epithet, since the blocks are home from home for 47 students. Rooms wrap around and are accessed from open external courtyards at first-floor level. These courtyards have the makings of popular communal spaces as people come and go; they also host freestanding study pods if students want company or a break from their orientally compact cells. Ground floors contain offices and a refectory, which addresses and connects with the parvis for al fresco dining in good weather.

While this modern rusticity might look like an ironic, insouciant riff on Troyes’ half-timbered heritage, it’s just as much a thoughtful response to constructional economy and efficiency.

Each room is a prefabricated unit made from heavily insulated, laminated timber panels faced in thin sheets of birch plywood. Units were simply craned in, stacked together and the external facades finished in a skin of clear, corrugated polycarbonate sheeting fixed to slim timber uprights. At ground level, toughened glass replaces the polycarbonate to prevent it from being cut or scratched.

The effect is a bit like one of those weirdly compelling anatomical models that reveals the workings of the body/building. Doubtless the architects could have used an opaque cladding material, but the interplay of transparency, layering and gutsy construction has more visual and conceptual panache. But like all Lipsky +Rollet’s work, it is an architecture of clarity and robustness designed for the everyday, with nothing wasted or fudged. ‘We like working with matter,’ says Rollet. ‘We like to twist it, drill it and cut holes in it. But we’d also be happy if people walked past our buildings without noticing them.

Architect Intégral Lipsky+Rollet Architectes, Paris, France
Project team Florence Lipsky, Pascal Rollet, Laurent Thierry, Anna Flak,
Bureau d’etude SFICA
Landscape architect Atelier Frédérique Garnier
Timber construction Gaujard Technologie

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